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How the Chiefs’ first-year wideouts could swing the AFC Championship

On Sunday, Kansas City is going to learn more about how well its recent personnel moves have worked out.

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Jacksonville Jaguars v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

It hardly seems possible, but it’s now been a full calendar year since this moment on GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium:

This was the play that lit the fire under the Cincinnati Bengals for their remarkable comeback in last year’s AFC Championship — something that Kansas City Chiefs fans would like to forget.

But this week — more than ever — we should remember it.

This moment is the reason we should be excited to see the team have a chance at redeeming itself. Same opponent. Same location. Same stakes. All the roster moves the Chiefs’ front office has made have led them back here.

While the condition of quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ right ankle will remain a crucial storyline for Sunday’s game, another big factor will be how head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy develop a plan to utilize their wide receivers — a group that could be entirely different than it was for the last playoff matchup versus Cincinnati.

Let’s look at how each one of these players could help the Chiefs come out on top.

JuJu Smith-Schuster

Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has developed a reputation for being one of the league’s best defensive game planners. Cincinnati has good players at all levels of its defense — but week-to-week, Anarumo maximizes their potential with opponent-specific schemes to confuse offensive coordinators and quarterbacks.

So the one predictable component of the Bengals’ approach is that it won’t be predictable. In fact, it will very likely include two different game plans: one for the opening half and one more for the final half. It won’t matter whether the Kansas City offense has success in the first or second quarter. Anarumo will continue to change things. hoping to keep Reid, Bieniemy (and quarterback Patrick Mahomes) from formulating a clear plan of attack in the third and fourth quarters.

Ironically, Mahomes’ injury might actually simplify things for the Chiefs. Their game plan will need to minimize the risk their quartback’s injury could be made worse. Forget what Cincinnati might do. Reid and Bieniemy know right now that they must have a good, consistent rushing attack — along with quick, clean passing concepts that the offensive line can protect well.

But when the Bengals blitz, Smith-Schuster will be a key target. Reid has raved about his ability to provide a safe, reliable target on underneath routes when teams are doing all they can to take tight end Travis Kelce out of the equation. Smith-Schuster can be the player who can help Mahomes from being hit — while still moving the chains.

Even while protecting Mahomes within this plan, Kansas City may still want to still take some deep shots downfield. One way they can do this is with back-shoulder fade passes to Smith-Schuster. Mahomes has made this connection more than a few times this season. The play takes only a couple of seconds to execute, but offers the potential for explosive gains as Smith-Schuster uses his size to beat cornerbacks downfield.

Kadarius Toney

A few weeks ago, I suggested that Toney might be a player who will change the landscape of the AFC playoffs. As we approach the conference championship, I feel even more confident in my theory.

When Chiefs and Bengals played in December, neither Toney or Mecole Hardman played. This made Kansas City’s red-zone offense a lot more challenging. Since then, Toney has returned — and he’s become a steady cog in how the team stresses defenses near the end zone. It’s not just Toney’s speed and agility. He is showing the playing strength to create additional yardage even when defenders have their hands on him.

Given that the Kansas City offense is likely going to make a more concerted effort to create quick plays, expect Toney’s role to grow even more. The Chiefs have no one who is better with the ball in their hands.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling

A more underrated potential contributor could be the man who had the game-sealing final touchdown in the Divisional Round victory.

Valdes-Scantling’s role will continue to be much different than a player like Toney — or even Smith-Schuster. He is the team’s field-stretcher. Safeties and cornerbacks must respect him downfield because of his speed. It can be more than that, however — and against the Jaguars, it was.

On the touchdown play, Valdes-Scantling is aligned in the slot. He’s being covered one-on-one by C.J. Henderson, who is Jacksonville’s best coverage player. Despite his injury, Mahomes faces the blitz with courage — and even though Valdes-Scantling isn’t known for his route-running abilities, he executes extremely well.

While a similar situation could present itself on Sunday, it’s more likely that Valdes-Scantling will get a couple of deep-ball targets while he is matched up one-on-one with a Cincinnati cornerback. Ideally, he will be running free and will be hit in stride — but against the Jaguars, he showed he is capable of occasionally coming down with a contested catch.

While Valdes-Scantling doesn’t command the attention that Tyreek Hill once did on vertical routes, his presence helps keep open things up for Kelce, Smith-Schuster and Toney underneath. That should show on Sunday.

The bottom line

The year since the last Bengals-Chiefs AFC Championship has flown by — and much has changed. There’s even been significant change since the recent regular-season matchup. Things could play out much differently.

Kansas City will march out onto their home field as playoff underdogs. The quarterback will be limited, but the team will have different receiving options and increased defensive speed.

And they’ll be right where they want to be.

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